It’s a tough time for the truth.
Accusations of “fake news” abound, and social media feeds focused on domestic issues are targets of sustained influence campaigns from foreign countries. In November 2018, the Council on Foreign Relations held a panel on the threat of what it has termed digital “deep fakes”: forged documents and recordings that have been deliberately created to confuse and mislead viewers, listeners, and readers. And, of course, there are also the dangers that journalists around the world face in speaking truth to power.
This is the environment into which LSA’s Department of English Language & Literature launched a new class on investigative journalism. The class starts with students reading work from some of the great investigative journalists of all time, including Edward R. Murrow, Lillian Ross, and Joseph Mitchell. Then, halfway into the semester, the students start producing journalism of their own.
“I kind of dumped them into the deep end,” says Distinguished Lecturer and Senior Academic Innovation Fellow Will Potter. “These students come from all different disciplines and backgrounds and experience levels. Some of them are in the midst of internships at media outlets, some write for the Daily, and others have zero experience with any of this. But no matter what their background is, I want them to know they don’t have to be intimidated.”
Potter’s own background is in investigative journalism. Having covered civil rights abuses during the War on Terror as well as legal and public disputes between the United States government and environmental activist groups, Potter brings a range of topical expertise and multimedia experience to his role in the classroom. But Potter, who was formerly a fellow in the Knight Wallace Fellowship Program and a Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism in LSA’s Department of Communication Studies, says that ideas about specialization and professional expertise can get in the way of learning the kinds of vital skills that journalism can teach.
“I approach all of my courses with the hope that some students will go into journalism,” Potter says, “but I structure the course with the expectation that they won’t. Students have to be able to tell a story. They have to communicate complicated material. They have to think about narrative multimedia techniques. Increasingly, this kind of thing is expected of everyone, so the focus is on developing those skills.”
Something Real Right Now
Journalism has a long, storied history at the University of Michigan. The old Department of English and Rhetoric offered the first newspaper writing course in the country in 1890. Fred Newton Scott, an assistant professor of rhetoric at U-M, pioneered the discipline of journalism in higher education at the turn of the century. In the postwar period, U-M supported strong connections with regional new outlets such as the St. Ignace News and the Mackinac Island Town Crier while also developing a strong program in broadcast journalism—a program so strong, in fact, that the Detroit Times referred to it as the “Hollywood of Educational TV.”
These strong foundations led to important partnerships with small-town newspapers and big-time news outlets that have placed students on the front lines of journalism throughout the twentieth century, and LSA graduates now hold senior positions at places such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and National Public Radio.
Potter has been uncovering this forgotten history in the archives of the Bentley Library. As part of his special appointment with the English department and the Office of Academic Innovation, he is tasked with advising the department’s new journalism initiative—and he’s using this legacy material to inspire that vision. The English department has several new journalism courses for undergraduates, with more to come. Potter is particularly excited about helping students develop vital skills while helping the region, state, and country in innovative ways.
“I don’t think anyone is interested in replicating a traditional journalism program model,” Potter says. “We can do something that is multidisciplinary and immersive that engages the community and the public. And we can do this while giving students an understanding of what makes a compelling narrative and how to communicate for a diverse audience instead of a specialized one.”
Aligned with Potter’s forward-thinking stance, the students in the course decided to use a twenty-first-century communication channel for their stories: Instagram.
“The class was pretty unanimous about where they wanted to post their stories,” Potter says. “Instagram allows us to create short videos, use photos, and write lengthy caption-style narratives. We don’t have a professional videographer or photographers. Selecting Instagram settled their nerves and mine because the platform takes some of the technical skill out of it. Now the students can just focus on the story, instead.”
The students’ project is called No Filter and is about safety. It explores the ways in which different members of the university community feel safe or unsafe on and off campus. The topic, material, and process have created an energy and enthusiasm that has made the teaching experience—including the course’s challenges, Potter says—invigorating.
“It can be hard when everyone comes in with such different levels of knowledge,” Potter says. “But everyone in the class is fired up, and it’s really nice to see that. We talk a lot about what are their assets, about how other students will talk to them differently than they would to a Washington Post reporter who just flew into Ann Arbor for the day. That really woke them up a little bit, realizing what resources they already had access to. It was really moving.”
And while students are working on a project that is self-directed and meaningful to them—and hopefully to their audiences—they are also developing the universal skills that investigative journalism relies on: the ability to listen closely, to think deeply, and to put tough questions to people who aren’t interested in giving forthright answers. If every graduate had those skills and practices, Potter says, it could not only transform journalism, it could also strengthen our democracy.
“I want to empower students,” Potter says. “It’s not magic. Students can go out and use these techniques right now and make something real.”